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Santorum Soldiers On in South Carolina
He’s lost momentum, but remains appealing to social conservatives.

Rick Santorum shakes hands in Spartanburg, S.C., Jan. 18, 2012.

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Katrina Trinko

Is it enough? Santorum is currently lagging in the polls, just edging out Paul for third in the Real Clear Politics average. With Romney and Gingrich 17 points and 7 points ahead, respectively, Santorum needs to find a way to captivate the Palmetto State’s Republicans in the next few days. Further complicating his efforts, Gingrich seems to be gaining momentum, winning praise for his hard-hitting, crowd-pleasing debate performance Monday night. Tuesday night, when Santorum spoke after Gingrich and Perry at an event hosted by the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, he failed to ignite the crowd the same way his rivals did.

“Newt stole the show today, definitely. He had that audience, and he was very convincing that he knew what he was talking about and would be very comfortable as president,” observed Shirley Hinson, director of government relations for the College of Charleston and former South Carolina House member. Hinson, who is leaning toward voting for Gingrich, commented that Santorum’s speech gave her the impression that he was “in over his head right now” and “lukewarm.” She also said the audience didn’t react as enthusiastically to Santorum, who spoke last: While Perry and Gingrich got multiple standing ovations from the audience, Santorum got only one, when he first came onstage.

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Santorum did get a boost from endorsements this weekend, when he won the majority of votes cast at a meeting in Texas of top social-conservative and evangelical leaders. And as his attendees in Lexington showed, he has strong appeal for social conservatives, who make up a significant chunk of the South Carolina electorate.

Speaking about why he prefers Rick Santorum over Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry, the restaurant’s manager, Ted Stambolitis, cites “his stand on Christian values, that he doesn’t deviate from that.” The other candidates have good morals, Stambolitis adds, but it’s Santorum who seems to hold them “more firmly than anybody else.” Carrie Trent, a college student from Columbia, S.C., initially was leaning toward Perry, but is now volunteering for Santorum. “Number one, he’s pro-homeschooling,” Trent (who was homeschooled) says of Santorum. “Number two, I feel like he’s the most pro-life candidate. And number three, he’s pro-guns.”

With Michele Bachmann out and Rick Perry lagging in the polls, Santorum is already the natural choice for such voters. But he has to increase his support among other Republican voters, a tricky task without Gingrich’s rhetorical chops and Romney’s aura of inevitability. But he is expending all his effort, campaigning hard — he ruefully noted in Lexington that he was running on three hours of sleep — and maintaining a grueling event schedule.

In Lexington, Santorum was introduced by state senator Larry Grooms, a former Perry supporter. Grooms had a warning for those assembled, his sincerity strengthened by his own decision to switch his endorsement from Perry to Santorum. Noting the outcome of the 2008 cycle, when John McCain beat Mike Huckabee to win South Carolina, Grooms ruefully observed, “We probably made a mistake in South Carolina four years ago by splitting the conservative vote.”

But Grooms also saw a chance for the Palmetto State’s conservatives to redeem themselves.

“This race is not just about what happens in South Carolina,” he added. “Because if we can coalesce and make sure the votes are behind Rick Santorum, then, without a doubt, that would send a message very loudly going into Florida.”

— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.



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